A Brief History of Hollywood Remakes
People love to complain about “all these remakes,” but it’s not nearly as new a trend as some seem to think.
“Ugh! Another re-make! Hollywood is officially out of ideas! What happened to originality? I feel bad for kids nowadays. When I was a kid, we had new and original ideas. Kids today are just getting dumb, re-hashed versions of classic movies THAT SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN RE-MADE!!”
I’m sure you’ve heard some version of that rant. You may have even been the one to say it. And while we do seem to be experiencing a rash of remakes lately (Red Dawn being the one currently in theaters), this is not at all a new phenomenon. Some of the earliest films we still celebrate are adaptations of previously existing stories and while that may not be a re-make in the strictest of senses, it is where it all began. As a people, we have been telling and re-telling the same stories for centuries. Take Ben-Hur for example.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. While the central character is not Jesus Christ, it is arguably a new look at the life of Christ. It is the story of how one man interacts with not only Jesus, but with the people that knew Jesus, the places Jesus went, and the times he lived in. The book and the movie both end with the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a new way to tell an old story. Very quickly after its publication, the rights to turn it into a stage play were optioned. Then, in 1907, it became a single-reel silent film. In 1925, it was remade with an expanded budget (3.9 million dollars, the most expensive silent film until The Artist). It was then, again, remade in 1959 — starring Charlton Heston — and broke the record for how many Academy Awards it won. So over the course of 50 years, Ben-Hur was made three different times (and since then it has been remade or re-adapted four more times). The question is, why?
Answering “why Ben-Hur” is to answer “why any remake.” We like to claim that the times change and so do audiences and so does Hollywood, but it’s startlingly similar — and what’s interesting is often the reason for remaking a film can be the remake’s downfall.
“No-one has done it right yet.” As our understanding of technology increases, we can’t help but look back and compare it to the technology of yesteryear. We see what we can do now and shake our heads at the limitations we once had. For some, this is enough to remake or revisit a film. “Think of what we can do now!” When the first Ben-Hur was 15 minutes long. That’s hardly enough time to scratch the surface of this epic, so it’s almost a no-brainer when, 20 years later, it was remade and was almost an hour long. Then, another 30 years later, it was remade again and in color, with sound! It also cost five times as much to make, but all of that money is on the screen. I don’t think anyone really begrudges Ben-Hur being remade so many times, especially when it really was done right in 1959. Even by today’s standards, it’s hard to top Ben-Hur as a movie-going experience.
The trap with this line of reasoning is that just because you can do it differently means you should do it. Did we really need a reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street? How about Tim Burton’s befuddling remake of Planet of the Apes? Conan the Barbarian? The Day the Earth Stood Still? Some movies don’t need to be revisited at all. Would Gone with the Wind be improved if we could really see Atlanta burning or if we were treated to a few Civil War battles or maybe some steamier love scenes?
“These are characters people love.” Big religious pageants may not be all the rage right now, but in the 50’s and 60’s, it seems like one was coming out every year. Families lined up around the block to watch religiously-themed epics. For that reason alone, it makes sense that the studio would resurrect Ben-Hur (no pun intended). You may roll your eyes at Bella, Jacob and Edward. You may have no interest in Clark Kent and Lois Lane. You may not understand the appeal of Snow White. But they are characters that exist, very successfully, in multiple mediums. They are TV shows, cartoons, comic book movies, movies, novels, T-shirts and jewelry. These characters have a following — literally, people who will follow them to whatever medium they show up on. This is why Batman has shown up in over 60 different radio plays, TV shows, and movies — and why Aquaman has shown up in four. If everyone loves a character or a story, why wouldn’t someone tell that story again?
What filmmakers have to be careful, though, with this is that they understand why people love these characters so much. The original Red Dawn, for example, really struck a chord with audiences because it came out in 1984, when we were still in our throes of Soviet paranoia. Russia invading America was a real and scary thought. That an foreign invasion could make a group of teenagers realize what’s important in life and fight off the Russians in the same way we fought off the British during the Revolution was inspiring. Remaking that today is problematic (which is why it’s only now being released, three years after it was filmed). America is in a different place now. We fear new things. If a studio wanted to capitalize on the same things that Red Dawn did, it seems they would assess the current state of America and its youth and make a film based on that. Perhaps a series of terror attacks that cripple the country and allow for a Taliban take-over of key cities in the United States? What if certain technologies were crippled in the attacks? How then would the next generation defend itself? Maybe we needed that movie instead of a re-make of Red Dawn (in which Russia is simply replaced with North Korea).
Film is not like theater. You can re-stage Hamlet or The Importance of Being Earnest every summer if you want to because people aren’t able to take those stage productions home. There’s only one way to re-watch our favorite plays, and it’s to return to the theater. But with film, we can own and re-watch our favorite movies within a month of them leaving the theater. So when a re-make comes out, many people’s first reaction is a very visceral, “why would I pay ten dollars to watch Not Kevin Bacon dance in Footloose?”*
This is at the heart of people’s frustration with re-makes. If filmmakers took the time and care to present something new (along with old, borrowed and blue), I believe audiences would be more forgiving of the recycled source material. Instead, what often happens is a script is dusted off, modernized with some contemporary jokes and references, and then filmed. The finished film often has references to the original film — sometimes written in as jokes, sometimes at sight gags, and sometimes as “loving homages.” As the audience sits through this, the audience is reminded of their love of the original and more times than not, they end up wondering, “why am I not just watching the original?” These homages and these references often cripple the new film, not allowing it to exist by itself. It becomes less of a film because it becomes less than a film.
“It’s the perfect time to bring it back.” With every generation being a reaction the previous one, certain themes cycle in and out of relevance. On the podcast Loren and I discussed our mutual disdain for Easy Rider. Yet it’s a movie we struck a very deep and resonant chord with a generation and it’s the same chord that I think is being primed to be struck again. Will someone remake Easy Rider? Probably not. But I wouldn’t put it past anyone to remake The Graduate. The climate may also be right for a remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I book and movie with themes and ideas that would certainly find a home with modern audiences. I wouldn’t have a problem with any of those films being remade, but ultimately the question still remains: Why?
Why remake anything? Why not take what audiences loved about the original and apply them to something new? For example, why demand a new Indiana Jones movie when you could make an Uncharted movie? Are there certain movies that just never need to be remade? Did we really need another Straw Dogs or Psycho? Couldn’t we have a Steve Martin comedy that’s not The Pink Panther?
Certainly there will be questions that are never answered. There should be. There shouldn’t be a formula to this. Movies and movie remakes need to be organic and artist-driven. With that said, audiences need to understand that remakes have always been here and will never go away. We need to respect that and allow for these remakes to exist. It’s possible a re-staging of your favorite film might bring something new and interesting to the world. But filmmakers also need to understand that we love these movies for a reason and if they’re going to remake a movie, it needs to be for a good reason.
I’ll conclude with, what I consider, two of the best recent re-makes/relaunches we’ve yet scene: Star Trek and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They both very successfully crafted something new, bold, and exciting. They both capture the imagination and will thrill you. They both, also, respect the originals enough to know they’ll never replace them. They both have their nods and homages to the originals, but neither rely on the audience’s love or knowledge of the original to tell a story. If you don’t have something new, then at least polish it and make it look new.
*An easy joke I make while having to admit that I think the remake actually surpasses the original.